Roque Santa Cruz has long been the proud face of Paraguayan soccer, with the Asunción native having enjoyed significant success at some of Europe’s biggest clubs. During his spell at Bayern Munich, he became the first man from the landlocked South American state to win the Champions League since Juan Agüero at Real Madrid way back in 1966, and he can almost certainly claim to be the most successful Paraguayan footballer of all time. Perhaps most dearly of all, not one, but two German publications declared him to be the sexiest player at the 2006 World Cup. He really was a tourist board’s dream.
But the 34-year-old has surprisingly failed to make Ramón Díaz’s Copa América squad, and though he hasn’t formally announced his retirement, Paraguay’s all-time record goalscorer may well have played his last ever match in the red-and-white stripes. After over a century of caps for his national team, things have come to a sudden halt. Santa Cruz’s non-selection has come to embody a broader changing of the guard, and a brave selection from coach Díaz sees Paraguay’s hopes placed in a relatively youthful selection.
Only four players in their squad have over 50 caps, while 11 players have 10 caps or fewer. The vast majority play their domestic soccer in the Americas; only a smattering of their young forwards have so far managed to gain a foothold in Europe. But even so, this edition of the Copa América comes at a time when Paraguay appears to be gaining momentum. They’ve not won this tournament since 1979, though have finished as runners-up and semifinalists in its last two editions.
One would expect that Paraguay’s relatively young team should help lower national expectations, but, of course, the chastened sports fan knows better than to expect the expected. Probabilities? Odds? Mathematics? Don’t be silly. In a perfect example of what one may term the "Hodgson Effect" after England's boss, Díaz’s selection could well lower expectations to the extent that supporters paradoxically begin to expect something special. There’s a feeling that Paraguay may be underestimated by all, when in reality, their group stage opponents will surely know better than to do that.
After all, Paraguay really does have some talent in their ranks. Plenty will be expected from Juan Iturbe, who was born in Buenos Aires and declared for the Argentinian national team, though reverted his allegiances last year (having been a Paraguayan youth international) after finding his international opportunities limited. He was once dubbed the "new Messi," with his diminutive stature and quick footwork earning him the rather optimistic comparison. Unfortunately, he failed to make a mark in the Premier League after being snapped up by Bournemouth on a half-season loan in January, though that should mean he’s all the more determined to show what he can do on the international stage.
He'll be competing with former Roma teammate Tony Sanabria for a place up front. Sanabria's a player with a thoroughly impressive pedigree, having come through the youth ranks at Barcelona. He scored 11 goals in the Spanish top flight with Sporting Gijón this season, and could well be the heir to Santa Cruz’s throne. Fleet-footed Dynamo Kyiv winger Derlis González is also one to keep an eye on. Tactically, they’re certainly not the most interesting team in the competition, with Díaz tending to prefer a robust two banks of four, but their smattering of individual talent will certainly make them a little more interesting to follow.
In all likelihood, Paraguay will struggle to make it past the group stages. Colombia is the best team in Group A, the United States should have enough if home advantage works in their favor, and Costa Rica has already shown a propensity to pull off major tournament upsets. And on first glance, that wouldn’t be a disaster: Díaz’s squad suggests he’s more interested in experimentation than experience. But in truth, this is an exciting bunch of young players, old enough by dint of being good enough. Having managed to reach the latter stages of this tournament in its recent editions, it would doubtless be a disappointment for them to fall at the first hurdle. Don’t be fooled: Paraguay will speak of the future, but they’re hoping for the now.